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When I first arrived at my son's house in Arizona, I got out of the car and for some reason my eyes were drawn to the stars, which were in every corner of the sky. This was my first visit to this beautiful US state, and I had no idea how the sky would look without the light pollution seen in so many parts of the world. I was absolutely in awe at the twinkling display above me, and was determined after that to make the visit to the Kitt Peak Observatory some fifty or so miles from his house on the outskirts of Tucson.
Kitt Peak Observatory houses the world's largest collection of optical telescopes and is situated high above the Sonoran desert. The site is home to twenty-four optical and two radio telescopes representing eight astronomical research institutions. The establishment also houses the world's largest solar telescope, which I think makes it a very exciting location indeed! Situated at the summit of Kitt Peak in the Quinlan Mountains this place has an isolated position, so make sure you have a full tank of fuel before you set off as there are no gas stations on the route up to the peak.
We set off in the early morning, and found the journey to the centre almost as rewarding as the visit itself, because the scenery is so beautiful. It is situated southwest of Tucson on the Tohono O'Odham Reservation, and it takes about 90 minutes or so to drive there. I would, however, allow longer, as it is just so awe inspiring, and we certainly stopped many times along the road leading up to the summit of the peak where the observatory is situated. Full instructions for the route are given at the end of this review.
A recent development in transport links has seen the advent of a shuttle bus service allowing those without transport to visit the centre, both during the day, and at night for observation evenings. The links for this are at the end of the review.
The road winds up for 12 miles reaching a final elevation of 6875 feet above sea level. It is a good road which has been well maintained, and due to the lack of traffic it is possible to stop almost anywhere to enjoy the views which stretch as far as the eye can see. We had my daughter-in-law with us who is a wealth of knowledge, and was able to show us plants and wildlife I would never have been able to identify myself. Half way along the road we stopped and she presented me with a bunch of mountain sage which had the most beautiful aroma, and was simply growing wild along the edge of the sloping terraces which hugged the road. The edge of the tarmac gave way to pure desert and the delight of the natural landscape which was alive with butterflies. This area is reservation land and the gift shop at the centre affords an opportunity to purchase crafts made by the Tohono Indians.
As we approached the summit I was in awe at the views which are panoramic in every direction. An orange heat mist filled the horizon and occasional sand storms obscured our vision momentarily. This was a symbol, to me anyway, that we were at altitude as there was, for the first time, a breeze, and a cooling opportunity which was absent from Tucson which basked in the 40 degree heat of the summer. I have read many accounts of visits here, and certainly outside the summer months it can get extremely windy and cold up there especially at night, so it is advisable to pack warm clothes.
There is ample parking at the entrance where the rest rooms (public conveniences) are located, and from here you can go to the visitors information centre and take a walk to look inside the buildings where the telescopes are located. There are two points to remember when walking around the areas in proximity to the telescope buildings- the first to beware of snakes, there are many signs warning you of the dangers, as apart from the observatory there is nothing for miles and miles except for desert. The second thing to bear in mind is that the observatory is a working scientific establishment, and that there are staff sleeping during the day in quarters on site so they appreciate quiet as you make your way around the observatory grounds.
At the area adjacent to the car park the centre provides picnic tables affording the opportunity to sit for a while, and to enjoy some time in the relative cool - a feature of weather not seen in most of the state of Arizona. Having said that you do still need sun screen, as the temperature was still very hot when we visited, but feels more cooling as there is more of a breeze at this high altitude. There is no café at the centre but drinks are available.
The opportunity to go on accompanied tours is there if you want it. These depart from the visitor centre at 10am, 11.30, and 1.30 and there is also rather excitingly the opportunity to join night excursions where you really can observe the telescopes in action. This is something I have promised myself I will do next time I visit, as the location, I feel, provides the perfect place to look into the vast expanse of space. The advantage of the night tours in particular is that they are taken by experts and I understand that a meal is also provided.
Taking a tour is not essential during the day as the buildings are open, and you can even download a walking tour from their website onto your MP3. This makes the day out totally free if you wish it to be, but if you join a day tour then the prices are still very reasonable at around $4 (£2.50) for adults and $2.50 (£1.56) for children depending on the time of year.
The visitor centre is full of information about the establishment which is fascinating and very well presented. When we visited we thought the observatory, the buildings, and the telescopes were interesting, and as it was the day time, of course, they were empty. Their corridors had an eerie "Star Trek" feel to them, but there was a sense of complete awe and wonder that came over us as we viewed their giant structures pointing up towards the vast world towards the stars.
Sadly the telescopes are not accessible to disabled visitors and certainly there are some steep walks up to them. There is a warning on the website about this, and about the altitude, warning you to be especially careful if you have cardiac problems.
I can highly recommend a visit to this majestic location and if astronomy is your passion you are in for a treat! If you are not really scientifically orientated, then I still recommend it for the vantage point it has to see the Senoran Desert in its magnitude.
Next time I have promised myself a place on the night observation tour.....so excited about that!
This review will also be posted on Ciao with photographs under my user name Violet1278.
www.noao.edu/kpno/kpcam/ for live webcams.
Directions: Kitt Peak is 56 miles southwest of Tucson via State Route 86 on the Tohono O'Odham Reservation. Allow 90 minutes of drive time from Tucson. Take I-10 to I-19 South. Less than 1 mile is Ajo Way/Hwy 86 (Exit 99). Take this exit West (right). Proceed past Ryan Airfield and Three Points. Continue until Junction 386 (Kitt Peak turnoff). Turn left onto 386. The Kitt Peak Visitor Centre is located at the summit (12 miles).
Adobe Shuttle 520-609-0593
* Require no reservation. Call Adobe direct to make your travel plans.
* There is a 9AM pick up either at your hotel or at Adobe's operation base at the Clarion Hotel at 6801 south Tucson blvd.
* Departure from Kitt Peak is 1:30PM
* Fees are based on the number of people in a vehicle. Groups of 10 or more get a special rate.
* The Visitor Centre is open daily from 9am until 3:45pm.
* Guided Tours begin at 10am, 11:30am, and 1:30pm.
* Admission to the Visitor Centre is FREE.
* The Kitt Peak Visitor Centre is CLOSED: New Years Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day.
Guided Tours last approximately 1 hour and are led by trained docents who know the history and interesting facts regarding each telescope. Normally, the tours go to the following telescopes; 10am the world's largest solar telescope, 11:30 the 2.1 meter telescope and 1:30 the 4-meter Mayall Telescope (tour last 1.5 hours). Tour locations are subject to change due to maintenance and safety issues. Unfortunately, most telescopes are inaccessible to wheelchairs.